It wasn’t a choice.
After all, Jim Harbaugh had visions of San Francisco’s second-round pick becoming a throwback player like Hall of Fame tight end Mike Ditka. The 49ers coach shared those thoughts in a post-draft interview with ESPN.
Harbaugh played for Ditka with the Chicago Bears and said he wanted his new tight end to carry on the same hard-nosed tradition of playing the tight end position with a rugged demeanor.
So, McDonald was penciled in as No. 89 in Harbaugh’s mind. When it was time to pick a uniform number, the second-round pick really had no other option.
“It wasn’t a suggestion,” McDonald, a first-team All-Conference USA performer said. “I was just handed the number. It came along with a role.”
When the Rice tight end heard of Harbaugh’s original comments, McDonald embraced the challenge, just like he’s looking forward to adding play-making depth to the 49ers tight end group.
McDonald admitted he hasn’t researched the playing days of “Iron Mike," but he’ll be getting around to it shortly after he finishes rookie camp with the 49ers.
“It’s an honor wearing the number,” said McDonald, a versatile contributor for Rice University, who caught 119 passes, sixth-most in school history.
Before McDonald can learn about Ditka, he’s taken the time to get to know his new teammates on the 49ers.
“I think it’s a great draft class,” the 6-foot-4, 262-pound tight end said. “We’ve already heard comments from the coaches that they have great things planned, so it’s great seeing everyone.”
Of all the rookies, McDonald was most pleased to see
In a 2012 regular season game, McDonald and Patton combined for 11 receptions, 154 receiving yards and three receiving touchdowns the last time they played on the same field.
It wasn’t a joint effort though.
Patton’s Louisiana Tech team came out on top 56-37 and the wide receiver enjoyed better receiving statistics in a winning effort. The 6-foot, 202-pound wideout caught seven passes for 119 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
Meanwhile, McDonald provided four catches for 35 receiving yards and a 14-yard touchdown catch on the day. The multipurpose tight end also rushed three times for 20 yards on end-around plays.
Both players still recall the high-scoring game and grew admiration for each other from the game.
“It was a love-hate back-and-forth game, but it was good," McDonald said. "We’re buddies.”
McDonald is pleased to have Patton on his side now that the two have started a professional career with the two-time defending NFC West champion 49ers. McDonald heard about Patton’s early flight out to the Bay Area, but didn’t want to rib him about it just yet. McDonald, like everyone else who heard about Patton's eagnerness, appreciated the gesture.
“That’s great to see,” McDonald said. “You don’t have a lot of direction and you expect to start right away. For a guy to do that, that’s something that’ll stick with him his whole career. It’s a great story, but I’m sure he’s going to do great things.”
There will be plenty of time for rookies to make light-hearted comments about the early flight, but for now, the necomers are focused on the real reason they were brought to 49ers headquarters.
“You can’t ever be too comfortable,” the rookie tight end said. “The coaches are certainly driving that into us already with the meetings we’ve had… You’re always competing. It’s a business. It comes along with the job.”
McDonald’s role with the 49ers will be a challenging one, too. He be asked to line up all over the field, sometimes in the backfield, sometimes on the line of scrimmage and sometimes flexed out wide as a slot receiver.
McDonald isn’t shying away from the challenge. He’s ready to contribute from day one.
“From talking with the coaches and knowing the situation here, tight end is a big weapon they use,” McDonald said. “I’m definitely looking to develop as quickly as possible and contribute alongside the guys who already here, the veterans.”
McDonald enjoyed a similar role with Rice. He lined up at many spots on the field and had success as a blocker, pass-catcher and as a leader on offense. The 49ers recognized those qualities and made him the No. 55 overall selection in the draft.
“I think the role I filled at Rice got me prepared for this job,” said McDonald, who is also open to special teams duties with the 49ers.
McDonald kept busy on the first day of rookie camp. He caught several impressive passes during one-one- drills and also took turns long snapping at the end of the day. It's just the first of many challenging days on the job, but McDonald feels suited to handle everything that comes with the territory.